The Importance of a Nonprofit Brand Strategy

This post was updated September 2021.

Read time: 5 minutes

Many people in the nonprofit world assume that developing big creative ideas (you know, the PR-worthy kind?) and making measurable social impact (those KPIs and ROIs and other 3-letter acronyms that affect your bottom line) are mutually exclusive. Maybe you’ve heard, or even said these things, yourself:

“Most nonprofits just don’t have that kind of budget for creative.”

“It’s too hard for our marketing, communications, and fundraising teams to work together to make something big happen.”

“We’re not like a regular brand, we’re a nonprofit. We have more critical goals.”

Before joining Media Cause in 2018, I spent over 15 years working with big consumer brands like Kleenex and Keurig. During that time, I learned three very important things about results-driven creative (well, hopefully a lot more than that, but three for the sake of this post):

  1. Creativity is not limited by budget, and sometimes the most successful ideas are born from the most unexpected constraints.

  2. A great idea has the power to cut through bureaucracy and internal territorial-ness if rooted in research and insights, pitched with passion, and attached to clear and measurable objectives.

  3. It’s not easy to get people to care about what you have to say–unless you care about what THEY care about, first.

That last one is especially critical in our nonprofit world, and if you have 5 minutes to keep reading (stay with me!), you’re about to find out why. Even though NPOs and for-profit marketing may seem different on the surface, there’s an overwhelming similarity in the behavioral psychology between motivating people to buy something and motivating them to give, join, or support. Let me explain.

Thinking Broadly

From a sociological perspective, the key to unlocking widespread support for anything (consumer or cause-based) is by thinking of it in the broader social context of everything else that’s going on in your audience’s lives. When someone makes (or doesn’t make) the choice to support your organization, it’s based on the same internal and external factors as making a choice to buy (or not to buy) a new pair of shoes.

  • What’s the functional benefit? (ex. Is it satisfying a practical need?)
  • What’s the emotional benefit? (ex. How will it make me feel?)
  • Does it align with my internal values? (ex. Do I like what it stands for?)
  • Does it peg me in a specific social group? (a.k.a. what external message does it send about me?)
  • What do I get out of the deal?

Humans, by nature, are subconsciously motivated to do things that are in our own self-interest, even when we believe we’re doing them on someone else’s behalf, and the end result has a positive outward impact. In fact, many psychology studies have proven that the core reason we give to others is that it makes us feel good. As much as we’d like to think that some people are inherently altruistic, very few of us are motivated to do anything purely out of the generosity of our hearts. We’re all a little bit selfish, and that’s 100%, unapologetically, inarguably, seriously OK.

I believe that the trick for nonprofits is to embrace this “selfish-ish” human truth instead of fighting against it. Once we’re able to see our organizations in the broader psychological and cultural “what’s in it for me?” context, we’ll realize that we’re not just competing against other nonprofits for our audience’s attention, but competing against every other message and call to act/buy/support/shop/give that’s bombarding their senses 24/7.

So what does that mean for how we communicate?

If your nonprofit organization is competing against brands who know how to satisfy your audience’s personal/selfish-ish needs, then your nonprofit organization needs to think and act like a brand, too.

And it all starts with one critical, but often underfunded, underemphasized, or misunderstood thing: Brand Strategy.

A brand strategy is not the same as a strategic plan, a campaign strategy, an execution strategy, or an engagement strategy. It doesn’t outline programs, initiatives, and budgets. It won’t provide clear-cut direction for that big creative idea (at least, not just yet), tell you what social channels to play on, or figure out whether or not blue donate buttons work better than red ones. And it isn’t tied to one specific department’s objectives, like fundraising, partnerships, or development.

What makes a brand strategy so unique, and so important, is that it’s the critical foundation on which all of those other things are built on. And surprise: it’s not all about you.

Building a successful nonprofit brand strategy

Building a successful nonprofit brand strategy—also 100% cool if you just want to call it “Branding”—requires diving deep into understanding three parts of your ecosystem:

  1. Organization: Your nonprofit’s mission, long-term objectives, priorities, results/reasons to believe, and external perceptions. This includes talking to internal stakeholders and peeling back the layers of what you do + how you do it to get down to the why: your truth, your reason, your values, and your beliefs. 
  2. Audience: Your existing audience’s (and potential new audience’s) rational and emotional needs, behaviors, mindsets, motivations, barriers, and external influences, all from a sociological, psychological, and cultural perspective. This includes talking to people who love you, who hate you, and who have no idea you exist, to understand external perception and any potential barriers to engagement.
  3. Landscape (formerly labeled “competitive whitespace,” in my very rough sketch): Who are the main competitors or collaborators within your issue space, and how are they communicating? What’s working well, and what’s not? What gaps can your organization fill that’s not being addressed? What social influences or broader cultural context may also impact how audiences want to engage with you?

Where the brand strategy magic happens is in finding the sweet spot where all of the information, insights, and opportunities from these three elements overlap:

Where your organization’s mission and beliefs satisfy your audience’s rational and emotional needs in a way that no other entity can.

Remember those selfish questions that impact someone’s decision on whether or not to buy, give, support, or act? With a solid brand strategy in place, you’re armed with the insights you need in order to take the next critical step: communicating that strategy clearly through your brand foundational elements—mission, vision, values, beliefs, personality, and tone. 

Without those key building blocks in place, launching any creative campaign or initiative (heck, even writing an email series) is akin to constructing a house without putting down the concrete slab first. Everyone within your organization needs to be working from the same foundational brand blueprint—one that’s accurate, emotive, connective, and resonant with your audiences—in order for the house to thrive.

If Nonprofit Branding and Brand Strategy aren’t one of your organization’s strengths, we’re here to help. Find out more about how we can work together by getting in touch with us.


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